Kevin Aho on the uncanny experience of ontological death
[I]f we look at the way in which Heidegger defines human existence (as ‘Dasein’ or ‘being-in-the-world’), a peculiar picture of death begins to emerge. It is not a terminal event that
happens at the end of one’s life and generally accompanied by a failure of biological functioning. It is, rather, a kind of ‘collapse’ or ‘breakdown’ (Zusammenbruch) of meaning itself, where what dies or comes to an end is not a physiological entity but the ability to understand and make sense of the world and oneself. Understood this way, death refers to the uncanny experience of having one’s way of being or identity slip away because the familiar world—that is, the shared background of meaning on the basis of which I understand who I am— has collapsed into meaninglessness. This is an ‘ontological death’ in the sense that I cannot be anything because the intelligible context of equipment, roles, and practices I draw on to fashion my identity and sustain my sense of self has lost all significance for me. I am, quite simply, ‘unable-to-be’. On this account, what Heidegger calls ‘dying’ is not only an event that I can physiologically live through; it is an event that discloses the structural vulnerability at the core of my identity and can occur numerous times throughout the finite span of my life.